In 2017, I wrote a brief tribute to Tom Petty that barely scratched the surface of his impact and influence on me as a musician, music fan, and writer.
It started with seeing the music video for supergroup The Travelling Wilburys “Handle With Care”. I thought this bloke picking away on a bass looked like a total badass. I was smart and well-read enough to know who Roy Orbison was by then and George Harrison. In addition to Petty, this video was my introduction to another artistic hero, Bob Dylan. History would later reveal to me that Tom was working on Full Moon Fever during the time of the Wilburys album being worked up. I did not think to take a deep dive into Tom’s music at the time, because I must have assumed he was a band member and not a solo artist. It never even occurred to me to look for his work at a music store.
I will never forget seeing the video and hearing “I Won’t Back Down” for the first time. I knew from day one that it would be a personal anthem for myself and anyone who could draw some strength from it. Even after hearing this song and another now-classic radio staple “Free Fallin”, it would be a few years before I acquired “Full Moon Fever” on cassette and CD. As of this writing, it remains on my list of vinyl records to locate when I can get it for a good deal. It was an album I loved playing in my walkman when a school or out walking through town. It did not need to be fast-forwarded or rewound to one particular song. It is that kind of album. One you can drop the needle anywhere, press play no matter where the cassette tape reel is, and have a CD player randomly make a song choice for you.
Like all of Tom’s music, fans find their own connections to each song. Full Moon Fever from start to finish feels like a very complete story that one can tailor to their evolving personal circumstances. It gives you a basis to elaborate and possibly comprehend many life situations. “Free Fallin” is the breaking out and away from something. It’s giving yourself permission to escape, suggesting a person could do something with that they might not otherwise want to do. It could be a statement of self-care. After the break-up of my first long-term relationship, it was a reminder that even with the pain, I was free to be me and free to escape the world and find comfort in my own life. On my own terms.
“I Won’t Back Down” can resonate with anyone about anything. It has become this ultimate anthem of fighting against the odds. It is a statement telling the world you will push back if you continue to get pushed. It’s instantly recognizable from the very first millisecond of music. It remains a classic rock radio favourite because of its’ popularity and how it can be placed to fill in a few short minutes of on-air space.
“Love is a Long Road” starts with a great set of keyboard chords before a matching guitar riff slams into symmetry with everything. Petty’s vocal is high with moments of leveled descension, hitting just low enough to make a line stand out before climbing back up again. His voice cuts through the richly engineered and recorded instrumentation to make it stand out as a musical element all on its’ pristine own. In my view, this track is one of Petty’s finest recorded performances as a vocalist. When I referenced this song as part of the breakup of my first long-term relationship, it served as a deep reminder. Love is a long road. Pain can be an even longer road. Lasting love can become quite a long road for so many. The definition does not have to be restricted to romantic relationships. It can be viewed at through the lens of any close relationship. Everyone is on this road with someone, or even with themselves.
“A Face in the Crowd” is a gorgeous composition with chill arrangements. Gentle guitar and bass accents add some texture to an already sweeping soundscape. I’ve enjoyed the poetics on this from day one because I felt like it was how my long-term relationships viewed me. How people viewed me in general. It was me attempting to downplay my own level of self-esteem and confidence in a friendly way. I’m trying to say I might be just like everyone else. Underneath is a bubbling confidence that I will show when comfortable.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” is a highway-driving song. Forget running completely. It has the perfect rhythm indicative of a steady speed down a highway. As a song it had a few extra ingredients that when removed, would make it sound almost incomplete. Think of the chorus where after Tom sings “Runnin, Down a Dream”, which is followed by quick strums of chords on guitar in the key of E, followed by a similar accenting with the next line “That never would come to me” and a heavily-strummed series of chords in the key of A. Take out that additional strumming, and a large void would be noticeable. The way this song spoke to me during some difficult times was comforting. I was running down the dream of getting out of high school, getting out of my small town when things felt out of control. Getting away from things that were causing me pain. Running away from nightmares. The reference to Del Shannon in this song is a nice tribute, and funny. Del Shannon himself appears making “barnyard noises” on the CD version of this record, in between this track and the next. Tom delivers a hilarious monologue to listeners asking them to wait a few seconds as if they were listening to the vinyl version and needed to flip the side over.
“Hello, CD listeners. We’ve come to the point in this album where those listening on cassette, or record, will have to stand up, or sit down, and turn over the record, or tape. In fairness to those listeners, we’ll now take a few seconds before we begin side two. (brief pause) Thank you. Here’s side two.”
Tom’s cover of The Byrds “Feel a Whole Lot Better” starts side two of the album and is a near-perfect read of the original. It’s uplifting and inspiring. It applied to so many events in my life when people were shown the door. It is a goodbye to toxic relationships and toxic habits. Writer and original Byrds member Gene Clark sadly was not able to get away from the toxic things that took over his life. I hope his family knows how important this song is to me and so many others. Tom Petty gave this song the appropriate salute it deserved.
“Yer So Bad” has another example of punctuated guitar chords during the chorus similar to what is heard in “Runnin Down a Dream”. After Tom sings “Yer So Bad”, a guitar and mandolin accent in the space with C chords, and I think a low C is hit repeatedly on a piano. Amazing thinking to add those little extra elements of sound. This is something I would love to talk to anyone in the studio during those sessions about. The song is a funny, cheerful head bopper with great drum work from Phil Jones.
“Depending on You” is a message I’ve relayed a few times to female friends who were casting doubt on themselves. It sort of came to life when a now former friend was feeling very defeated living at home where her parents were abnormally “strict” in almost a biblical sense. She felt that she might have to conform in order to just have some peace in her life. I was asking her to trust my advice and the advice of her friends. That she could overcome things and not compromise her evolving individuality. Musically this track flows well with the vocals. At the chorus, everything behind Tom’s vocal feels like its’ escalating in tone in order to drive home the message. It is an attempt to reassure the friend that she is going to be ok. We are depending on her to take the advice of those who care and accept her for who she really is. She can overcome the adversity.
There are so many reasons to love “The Apartment Song”. It still brings a smile to my face today when I listen to it. After the breakup of my first long-term relationship, I moved out of my hometown apartment which was literally two rooms. There was always some noise from the neighbours, which represented in a way the chaos and how my life was at a bit of an impasse. Lost my first real job around that time and was on the outs with a close friend. Through it all and even with the feelings of loneliness, I knew life was going to get better. This song now brings back pleasant memories of that apartment. Even at two rooms it was very different than what a person might imagine. It had tall ceilings, with shading from the summer sun thanks to the large trees that surrounded the building.
I could not really relate to “Alright for Now” as a song lyrically. It has always sounded like a song that someone could dedicate to their child as they are put to bed. It could be interpreted as comforting anyone who is tired and in need of rest. It is giving reassurance and reason, a shoulder to cry on. It has hauntingly beautiful guitar work with equally delicate vocal harmonies. It is a well-placed track within the album as it slows things down.
The record picks up the tempo again with the sharp-witted “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own”. The personal interpretation I’ve taken from it has little to do with the song words. It can be a anthem for people who wear their hearts out in the open and on their sleeves. It could leave people pondering a question. Are the actions of the mind driven by the heartbeat? Or is it the other way around? I’m not asking for the scientific answer here. I’m suggesting both could be right based on an emotional reaction.
Full Moon Fever closes with my least favourite song on the album in “Zombie Zoo”. It has almost a circus feel to it. The track is still fun and a wonderful chapter to close off this masterpiece of an album. Knowing Roy Orbison is one of the backing vocal contributors adds an ingredient of magic to it. Tom is likely singing about some of the interesting people on the Sunset Strip. Reading the lyrics now I feel I might have met similar people in Las Vegas during my trips there.
This album continues to carry significant weight. It is a sonic and poetic work of brilliance from one of rock and roll’s greatest players and greatest people. Everyone and anyone else who was involved in this record has something to be proud of. It should be remembered as one of Tom Petty’s best records, and one of rock’s defining works from the late 1980’s.